Ripe for investment: Mayors convene in OKC to discuss opportunity zones

Published Monday, September 9, 2019
by Steve Metzer

Mayor David Holt had a unique opportunity to showcase the city Thursday and Friday when mayors of Los Angeles, Cincinnati and other major metros met here for a gathering of leaders of Accelerator for America.

Accelerator for America, described as a “research and development arm of cities and mayors,” works with local governments across the United States to generate revenue for infrastructure and other initiatives to improve quality of life. Rather than a “think tank,” it is characterized as a “do tank.” Holt recently joined its advisory council.

Business executives, labor leaders and officers of nonprofits and philanthropic organizations also were among those who gathered in Oklahoma City for meetings of the council, which is chaired by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Other officials represented Houston and Austin, Texas; Philadelphia, Pa.; Chicago; Lansing, Mich.; Topeka, Kansas; and other cities, along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Among other things, the leaders discussed federally recognized “opportunity zones” that can attract investments to cities and states. Holt described eight opportunity zones in the Oklahoma City metro as strong options for American taxpayers who might choose to delay or even potentially avoid paying taxes on capital gains by investing in what the mayor termed “OZ projects” through qualified opportunity funds.

The federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in 2017 included incentives for investors across the country to defer paying capital gains taxes and also to reduce tax bills over a period of years by investing in opportunity zones. At least 8,764 zones have been identified across the nation. Oklahoma, one of the first 15 states to designate zones, has 117 in all. Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but Garcetti said it’s likely that hundreds of OZ infrastructure and quality-of-life improvement projects are underway or being explored nationwide.

Eight zones in OKC that Holt described as ripe for investment include:

  • The Central Business District, including Bricktown, the Arts District, Film Row, Deep Deuce, Automobile Alley, and the Boathouse District. The American Indian Cultural Center & Museum is just one of many attractions in the area, which has seen huge investment, both private and public, in recent years and is due for more.
  • The Innovation District, featuring a cluster of medical and research institutions that attract three-quarters of project dollars Oklahoma receives from the National Institutes of Health.
  • The 23rd Street Corridor, an area with high demand for services and residential development. Close to the emerging Innovation District and the Oklahoma Capitol, the area boasts 359 acres of vacant land.
  • The I-35 industrial zone, focused on transportation and distribution. With easy interstate access, manufacturing, utilities and wholesale trade industries cover 61% of the market. There are 242 acres of vacant land available for development.
  • The I-35 and I-240 zone, adjacent to the fastest-growing and highest-income ZIP codes on the south side of Oklahoma City. The district is located at a significant highway interchange and features vacant land as well as several large available buildings, including a former mall.
  • The I-40 Corridor, with anchor assets including an outlet mall and the Westgate Marketplace with 58 stores.
  • The I-44 and I-235 zone, near industrial opportunities and significant residential and retail trade. Major assets include Chesapeake Energy Corp. and proximity to prominent retail like Penn Square Mall and Classen Curve.
  • The Adventure District, which has a focus on tourism, the arts, entertainment and recreation. Major assets include the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Remington Park Racing & Casino and the Oklahoma City Zoo. Holt said he is optimistic about the potential of opportunity zones in the city.

“Of course, we did have our first big OZ win last week with announcement of the Homeland grocery store and headquarters in northeast (Oklahoma City). That development deal is partially backed by a national OZ fund comprised of HBCU (historically black college and university) investors,” he said.

Accelerator for America assisted Oklahoma City with a prospectus describing investment potential in the city’s opportunity zones. It lists reasons for investors to take note of the city, including its growing workforce. Over the past decade, the city has added 118,000 workers and experienced 7% job growth and 6% growth in employees under age 29.

The city also boasts strong entrepreneurial spirit. Since 2007, the metro has added more than 15,000 locally owned businesses, and the percentage of small businesses has increased from 20% to 27%. The prospectus notes, too, that the local economy is diversified and features a healthy mix of energy and aerospace. More than 230 aerospace firms are now located in the region.

Oklahoma City has invested a lot in itself in recent years. Eye-openers for the visiting mayors may have included Bricktown Ballpark, Chesapeake Arena, the Bricktown Canal and Downtown Library.

Rochester Hills Michigan Mayor Bryan Barnett, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said Oklahoma City is a good example of cities leading the way in a nation where polarizing politics sometimes get in the way of good governance.

“This is an exciting time to be a mayor. Cities are where the action is at,” he said. “It’s easy to see what’s wrong with America … and to cast blame. What’s not so easy is to see what’s right in America, and that’s what’s happening here in Oklahoma City with efforts that have been made to improve quality of life and create opportunities for everyone.”

Garcetti agreed.

“Oklahoma City is clearly one of the great American cities,” he said.

Holt said he believes the city and its opportunity zones will attract additional investment as a result of groundwork done in the city and its positive relationship with Accelerator for America.

“Oklahoma City has been a strong partner with the people you see on this stage to help us position our opportunity zones,” he said.

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